Preface: There is A LOT of misinformation about alcohol in the fitness/health community. Conventional wisdom, magazines, dogmatists, would have you believing for every alcoholic drink you ingest you lose a year of life, a pound of muscle, an inch of your penis, whatever.
They’re all wrong.
Two great articles dispelling these notions are:
I unfortunately don’t have much to add to those two articles. They are very well done and pretty encapsulating of the issue. Here is where my opinion comes in.
Some of the better alcohol articles out there go something like this:
-Alcohol is fine when drinking in moderation.
-In fact, alcohol has a host of health benefits. One could easily make an argument a drink a day is healthier than abstinence.
-Alcohol has some interesting facts associated with it. It seems moderate drinkers deal better with depression. Or the fact drinkers often weigh less than non-drinkers (references at the end). Of course, anyone from a long line of alcoholics (an Irish family) already knows this as evidence by the fact grandma is 110lbs and can out drink everyone at the family gathering. (We Irish don’t view age as a deterrent; merely extra years to hone our skills and tolerance.)
-The negative effects are hyperbolic. Unless you’re an alcoholic or “heavy drinker” -seems to be somewhere around at least 4 drinks everyday- there is little to worry about.
-Thus, don’t be part of the narcissistic, OCD bodybuilding / health nut crowd. You know, that Tupperware carrying jackass who brings broccoli to the Super Bowl party, judging you as you pound down your 20th wing. Instead, feel free to have a drink, or a few, and not worry about it.
-The articles typically finish up with: If you are going to drink here is how you should do it:
- Eat X amount of fat that day.
- Eat X amount of protein that day
- Eat X amount of carbs that day
- Focus on these liquors / beer over these liquors / beers
- Only have this many drinks
The great irony here is the same people assailing neuroticism are then advocating it by saying, “Feel free to have some drinks and not worry! But…worry about all this other crap instead.”
Uhh, no. If I’m going out drinking, I’m fucking drinking. The last thing I’m concerned with is how many grams of ethanol beer X has over beer Y. Or did I have too many grams of fat today? Or the fact I should be drinking Everclear instead of Jameson because it has a better calorie to alcohol ratio.
However, I can’t deny this is an awesome website: www.GetDrunkNotFat.com
Yeah, because I REALLY want to have multiple shots of Everclear. I’m sure that will help my coherence when I venture off to meet the cute blonde across the bar.
Or I really want to be that guy who denies a free beer because it has too many calories.
And if you’re drinking Miller 64, I loathe you.
Also, a lot of times when people go out they don’t know how the night is going to go. They might not even know they’re going out that night until that afternoon. They might actually believe they are going out for a “drink,” only to fall into that familiar routine of one turning to ten. Seriously, unless you’re drinking wine, in which case I don’t understand you anyways, why would you go out for one drink? Bad decisions never happen from one drink.
Therefore, we have two solutions:
1) Figure out how to drink inordinately without turning to lard.
2) Move to Los Angeles, where apparently people don’t drink or know what bars are.
Anyone who has been to LA knows 2) is not an option. 1) it is then.
As I mentioned, I’m going to talk about option 1) in the non-neurotic vain. The main way I want to look at this is in the retrospective rather than prospective. So, rather than you know you’re going to be drinking Saturday and preparing for it, I’m going to look at it as “Holy hell, I drank so much last night I honestly think I’d prefer death over how my head feels right now;” what do you do now?
Quick primer on alcohol calories
The articles I linked to above, A muscle’s head guide to alcohol and The truth about alcohol, fat loss, and muscle growth, do a very good job of summarizing alcohol when it comes to calories. I’m going to borrow a few notes from them:
-Carbs and protein contain 4 calories per gram; fat contains 9, alcohol 7.
-Alcohol really doesn’t get synthesized into fat. (Neither do carbs or protein.) This DOESN’T mean you can drink or eat all the alcohol, carbs, or protein you want and not worry about fat gain.
–What these nutrients do is blunt fat burning. So, in our case, if you’re ingesting a lot alcohol you’re not burning as much -if any- fat. Rather, you’re metabolizing the alcohol instead.
-Therefore, if we’re ingesting a lot of alcohol, we’re burning a lot of alcohol. However, we’re burning less fat and likely storing more fat from the fat grams we’ve eaten throughout the day, or while out drinking.
-No, you can’t just eat 0 grams of fat. Eat too little fat and the body can turn things like carbs into fat instead. Plus, the idea here is you might not necessarily be able to prep for a night of drinking anyways. (For more on how we store fat check out this article from Lyle McDonald How we get fat. )
Unless you are someone with a hell of a drinking ability (in which case we should hang out), chances are you’re really not ingesting that many calories from your drinks.
Note I’m going to go into detail, aka be a bit neurotic, to illustrate why you shouldn’t be neurotic about this topic.
I’m a tall guy at 6’4”. While I don’t weight too much (190lbs), I’m bigger than your average person. Couple this with the fact I’m Irish and I drink often; I can easily go out and in a night have 10 drinks, not think too much about it, and feel fine in the morning.
Let’s say I’m drinking a moderately strong beer.
10 beers x 170 calories per beer = 1700 calories from drinks
In my mind, other than a couple close friends and I (the drinking elite), nobody is ever ingesting more than 2000 calories in a night of drinking. If they are, it’s doubtful it’s on a regular basis. (Day drinking –my favorite – is a different ball game.)
At my weight, my maintenance calories for a day is about 3000. So if I eat 3000 calories a day my weight remains pretty much unchanged.
3000 – 1700 = 1300 calories left over until I hit maintenance.
Meaning I could drink 1700 calories, eat 1300 and maintain my weight.
Of course, we have to factor in the rest of the day too. I’m making up hypothetical scenarios here, but like a lot of people I eat the majority of my calories at night. So, let’s say it’s a Saturday night and I’m going out at 8pm. We’ll assume I ate 1500 calories so far during the day.
1500 calories during the day + 1700 calories from drinking = 3200 calories for the day.
On a night of drinking my ass off I’m only 200 calories over maintenance. Hardly worth worrying about. I can easily eat 200 less on Sunday and make up for my debauchery. Or 100 less Sunday and Monday. Or whatever. Point is, you ate / drank too much Saturday night so eat / drink less the next day or two or three. Or eat / drink the same but exercise more the days after you go out.
Of course, we’re missing a crucial factor though…
The most overlooked aspect
We all know that’s rarely how the night ends. The infamous late night diner run or burrito escapade hasn’t been mentioned yet.
This is where people go awry. It’s not the drinking that does people in, it’s all the shit they eat in conjunction to the drinking. Who the hell wants chicken and vegetables after drinking? I think I’ll go with the ham and cheese omelette with homefries. Or a California burrito.
Again, being bigger than most, and having been to many after-drinking-eating experiences, I’m going to assume I eat more than most. Let’s say I eat 1200 calories after going out. Back to our math:
1500 calories during the day + 1700 from drinking + 1200 from eating with / after drinking = 4400 calories.
Or 1400 over maintenance. Suddenly we have a lot more catching up to do.
This is not where I’m going to say, “Just don’t eat while out drinking!” To reiterate, the point here is not to discourage going out with friends, socializing, drinking and eating. The point is to be able to do these things while fitting them into a reasonable, healthy lifestyle.
Plus, food never tasted so good after a plethora of beer.
If you’re someone who is dieting, you’re likely in a caloric deficit of at least 300 calories a day already. Chances are it’s greater than that (and probably should be), I’m going to be generous though.
Now consider the other 6 days of the week.
6 days * 300 calories per day = 1800 calories of a deficit for those 6 days.
We’re eating at a total of 1800 calories below maintenance for those 6 days. And then we’re eating / drinking at a 1400 calorie surplus on that one day. So,
1400 – 1800 = -400 or a net deficit of 400 calories per week.
We’re still in a deficit despite the fact I’m on a very lax diet, I had a lovely Saturday night drinking, and ate my face off as well. Not to mention I didn’t make any adjustments to my diet, I merely stuck to it 6 out of 7 days.
After all that drinking and eating Saturday, if I’m on point the other 6 days of the week, I should still be losing some weight.
Even with practically every circumstance being less than ideal, I should still be losing some weight!
Now the scenarios are infinite, but unless you’re an alcoholic, you’re likely not drinking 10 beers a night on too regular a basis. And even then, chances are weight-loss is the least of your concerns.
If you’re a drinker, maybe you have 10 Friday night, and calm down with 5 the following. Then maybe you eat less throughout the week, or you exercise some more, whatever it is.
An extra 850 calories (5 beers * 170 calories), on top of what I just went over, really isn’t that hard to make up for through 5-6 days. And I’m assuming you drink that much or that way every week, an unlikely assumption.
Is this optimal? Hell no. But for a lot people not drinking, or going out with their friends and having one (why bother?) while they have 6, isn’t optimal either.
In my personal experience with my clients, the binge drinkers are never the problem. It’s the people who consistently have 1-3 drinks like 5-6 days per week. And it’s really not the alcohol that’s the problem with these ones. In fact, if you and I eat the same amount each week, but I’m a moderate drinker while you’re a non, chances are I will have less fat than you! (References below.)
The issue for these people is drinking is social. If they’re drinking 5-6 times a week they are likely eating out many times a week too.
And people almost always eat more when eating out with other people. (See How your environment makes you overeat, how men and women are different with food, and how to get your bartender to give you more alcohol. )
My point here is alcohol is not the problem. Even if it was a problem, physiologically and calorically it is easy to make up for. “If I could just stop drinking” is merely another vacuous excuse for you not losing weight.
Alcohol is not holding you back; you are.
References regarding drinking and bodyweight / bodyfat: